AFTER competing against the best of the best, Ken Bald and the Australian croquet team have returned home from New Zealand with a third-place finish in the prestigious MacRobertson Shield.
In the four-nation tournament from December 30 to January 15, Australia was defeated by England in Christchurch, 16 to 5, and hosts New Zealand, 15 to 4 in Napier, before recovering in the third Test to post a comprehensive 17 to 4 victory over the United States in Mount Maunganui.
It was New Zealand's first MacRobertson Shield victory since 1986, with Great Britain having won the past seven series, with the 1990 and 1993 victories as Great Britain and Ireland.
With three five-day Tests played in the space of 17 days, Bald said it was a massive challenge.
"It was so intense," he said.
"I knew it would be, but I didn't realise it could be so intense."
"Some days we were finishing at five past nine or 10 past nine, in the dark."
He said the team had to face a number of challenges, including adjusting to playing 12 and 13 hour days on fast courts in hot, windy conditions.
"They were really fast courts, the wind got us and the hills on the court got us," he said.
"We had some very hot days it was 32 degrees there but felt like 40 degrees here."
Bald said while the team did not get its desired result, he was happy with the way he fought back to win one singles match and two doubles matches with team-mate Malcolm Fletcher against the USA in Mount Maunganui.
"Obviously we were slightly disappointed, but I was happy with my finish," he said.
"In Mount Maunganui, I thought, we've got lawns here that suit us, and we won 17 to 4. With the conditions and being so tired, I was pretty happy, and to turn it around at the end was fantastic."
The Kalimna Park croquet player, currently ranked in the top 50 players in the world, said an early-morning plane flight from Christchurch to Napier on the day between the first and second Tests was not ideal preparation for a big match against the hosts.
"Virtually when we started the second Test against New Zealand we were on the back foot because we were so tired," Bald said.
"They had made a game plan that they were going to grind us down.
"I've never played a game in my life before that went for seven hours and 45 minutes and my partner and I only used about 90 minutes of that time."
He said New Zealand had a major advantage, having more familiarity with the hoops used during the tournament.
"The elite players all had trouble making hoops," Bald said.
"We all agreed at the end, you had to be gentle the hoops could spit you about two or three metres, it shocked us a bit.
"New Zealand had practised with them for more than a year, and it made a big difference."